We've been pretty tough on Tim Geithner here from time to time, but we do understand the huge problem he faces, which is distilled nicely in this story in today's Washington Post:
Pity Barack Obama's economic advisers...Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner and his colleagues face a nasty dilemma: There are no solutions to the banking crisis without extraordinary political and financial risks. Thus, they have adopted a three-pronged approach, delay, delay, delay, in the hope that somebody comes up with a breakthrough.
Here's the problem: Today's true market value of the U.S. banks' toxic assets...amounts to between 5 and 30 cents on the dollar. To remain solvent, however, the banks say they need a valuation of 50 to 60 cents on the dollar. Translation: as much as another $2 trillion taxpayer bailout.
That kind of expensive solution could send the president's approval rating into a nose dive. Consider: $2 trillion is about two-thirds of the tax revenue the federal government collects each year.
The logical alternative...is to temporarily restructure or nationalize the banks and leave taxpayers alone...
Oh, if it were that simple. I suspect Obama's advisers would like nothing more than to dismantle an irresponsible firm such as Citigroup. They are afraid to do so, for one reason: All the big banks are connected to a potentially lethal web of paper insurance instruments called credit default swaps...
The theory holds that dismantling a big bank could unravel this paper market, with catastrophic global financial consequences. Or not. Nobody knows, because the market for these unregulated financial derivatives, amounting potentially to over $40 trillion (by comparison, global gross domestic product is now not much more than $60 trillion), is the financial equivalent of uncharted waters.
Geithner has reason to be terrified. He was part of the Henry Paulson-led team that underestimated the devastating global-contagion effect of the collapse of Lehman Brothers. Geithner won't make the mistake of underestimation again.
Geithner also knows that the mood in Congress has changed. Were a global financial brush fire to break out as a result of bank restructuring or nationalization, today's populist Congress might just let it burn.
And the conclusion?
In the end, at least one thing is certain: Our present position is unsustainable. The longer we delay fixing the banks, the faster the economy deleverages, the more credit dries up, the further the stock market falls, the higher the ultimate bank bailout price tag for the American taxpayer, and the more we risk falling into a financial black hole from which escape could take decades.
So poor Tim has his hands full -- and soldiers on without a proper staff!
Sounds like a problem that requires a full court press from the White House day in, day out, don't you think?
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